Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Thunderbirds opt out of season, plans to resume play in 2021-22 season

By Zachary Baru

Hockey fans in Springfield will have to wait until the fall for the return of professional hockey, as the Springfield Thunderbirds announced that they will be voluntarily opting out of the 2020-21 American Hockey League season.

Not only will this be a major loss for hockey fans and families seeking entertainment in the area, but this impacts the already-hurt restaurants and other businesses in the city's downtown.  Economics aside, with a rise in cases and a concern for the safety of fans, the numbers show that this was most likely the right choice made by the team.

The Thunderbirds aren't alone, the team is one of three AHL franchises choosing to opt out of the season. Since joining the AHL in 2016 after the Springfield Falcons left for Tucson Arizona, the Thunderbirds have achieved a quick and large amount of momentum in the city.  There is no question COVID-19 has affected this momentum, but the impression the Thunderbirds have made on the city and its fans has been extremely positive, a sign the momentum could easily continue once play is resumed in the fall.

Without significant television revenue, a minor league team like the Thunderbirds depends on its ticket sales for revenue.  Removing this would make a season extremely difficult, a contributing factor to having the Thunderbirds choose to opt out of play.

When hockey returns, the 94-year legacy of Springfield hockey will continue, once again bringing fans into the city and aiding a downtown in need of its team.

Zach Baru can be followed @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

A look at the economic loss of hockey in Springfield during the pandemic

By Zachary Baru

Just how far does the economic loss of the Springfield Thunderbirds run in Downtown Springfield during the pandemic?  The toll might be much more than one would think.  

The truly measure the loss of Springfield's American Hockey League franchise during COVID-19, you would have to start before the game is played, and before the fans even start making their way to the venue.  The full economic benefit of the Thunderbirds comes from more than just fans.  It's the players, staff from both teams and the league and the media.  Technically, players from the Thunderbirds start contributing to the local economy months weeks before the first game of the season, as all of the players are moved to the area.  But for this look at the economic input, let's keep it to a gameday snapshot.  

If you start with the players, each gameday you have a full team of players coming from out of town and visiting.  This can benefit restaurants, and if the team is staying over night, it can bring extra players along with coaches and staff to hotels.   There are also media members covering not the Thunderbirds, the away team, and the league as well.  Scouts are also frequent in the AHL, just one level below the National Hockey League.  These scouts need restaurants, as well as hotels during their stay in Springfield.

We have not even come to the fans yet.  Fans fill into Downtown restaurants before the game to have a pre-game meal or meet up with friends, and many times after the game will again go out for a post-game meal or drink at a local bar.  

Restaurants and hotels usually get most of the attention around sports events or concerts, but all businesses in the area will see more people coming in and out.  This goes for the large ones such as MGM Springfield, but also businesses and stores people might shop at such as gas stations, drugstores and other retail. 

For all of this economic activity, the locally-owned businesses see more revenue, benefiting business owners and trickling down to the paychecks of employees through wages.  But for the city and the state, the real economic gain is through local and state sales taxes.  This is especially evident when away team fans, players, staff or media stay at local hotels.  Local taxes are added to hotel bills, greatly contributing to the local economy.

While this is just a fairly quick look at how the local economy is affected by one single hockey game in Springfield, a full study would reveal the many ways businesses benefit, as does local and state tax revenue.  The Thunderbirds are an economic driver for Springfield, and the pandemic provides a rare opportunity to see truly, how important this franchise means for our city.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.  Zach also writes SportsBusinessBoston.com.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Springfield feels loss of Thunderbirds, concerts downtown

By Zachary Baru

On a typical game night, the Thunderbirds bring much more to Downtown Springfield then entertainment.  The history that we have come to know of hockey in Springfield has been adding to the city's local economy each month during the fall, winter and spring since 1926.  But in March of 2020, that tradition has been put on hold.  Unfortunately for the businesses of Downtown Springfield, many of their futures have been put on hold along with it.  

During the pandemic, stores, restaurants and hotels in Springfield have taken severe financial hits.  It is a time like this where the importance of events in the city, such as the Thunderbirds and other concerts that come through the MassMutual Center are realized.  

The 6,663-seat (fixed seating) MassMutual Center is typically responsible for various entertainment events throughout the year.  Removing this important part of the city's culture can be detrimental for the city, as we are seeing now during the pandemic.  

It is unquestionably unsafe to hold large events during a pandemic, but the importance of such events to a city's economic health is brought to light during these difficult times.  Arenas such as the MassMutual Center bring residents and visitors alike to a city, and provide the area with economic potential before and after the event.  

This can be seen before and after each Thunderbirds game, when downtown restaurants see a rush of guests build immediately before the game, and once it is over, another rush of patrons comes through the restaurant.  Fans like to meet before the game, and they like to socialize after, all of which is important for the establishments throughout the downtown area.  

The Thunderbirds are more than just entertainment, they are a lifeline for the city.  They are a lifeline for the businesses in the city.  And they are what makes the city and the area's 94-year history of hockey special.  Concerts and sports provide so much to the businesses in and around Downtown Springfield.  This pandemic has forced all of us to stop taking certain things for granted, maybe some of us can add our own entertainment in the city to that list.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.  Zach also writes SportsBusinessBoston.com.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Bernie Sanders brings 2020 race to MassMutual Center

By Zachary Baru

There won't be the typical hockey game on Friday at the MassMutal Center, or even a concert or the occasional basketball game.  Friday night the MassMutual Center will become a full-blown political venue, hosting a rally for Democratic Candidate for President and Vermont Senator, Bernie Sanders.  

The rally will be held just days before the Tuesday, March 3 primary election, as Massachusetts is one of 15 states to be part of "Super Tuesday".  Having a leading candidate like Bernie Sanders in Springfield will be an opportunity for the region to have national media attention, as well as showcasing the the MassMutual Center and the opportunities it provides as a large entertainment venue.

Friday night's crowd will undoubtedly draw thousands of combined spectators and media members, providing the area with economic impact to restaurants, hotels and retail, including MGM Springfield just across Main Street.  It is events like these that make the MassMutual Center an important part of the regional economy in Western Massachusetts, and a reminder of why we need more events to draw in visitors who will continue to boost the local economy.  

With a large nationwide following, and as a Senator from nearby Vermont, the possibility of the rally being sold out is high.  No announcement from officials regarding the seating has been made yet, most likely due to reasons of security.

Having nationally-known and internally-followed figures such as Bernie Sanders holding rallies in Western Mass. is great for the region, and beneficial for the economy.  Single events like this, however, will only have a limited impact, and more events, including concerts and sports, will be crucial to maximizing the economic growth of the region into

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.  Zach also writes SportsBusinessBoston.com.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Pioneers bring national television coverage to Ludlow

By Zachary Baru

National media attention will be coming to Ludlow this March, when the Western Mass. Pioneers host Portland (Maine) at Lusitano Stadium.  The match will be part of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, U.S. Soccer's annual national tournament that includes all levels of play in the U.S. Soccer system, both professional and amateur.  The Pioneers are no strangers to the U.S. Open Cup, who have been in the tournament nearly every year of the club's existence since the team was founded in Ludlow in 1997 by the Gremio Lusitano Club, still current operators of the team.

The Pioneers will host a first-round U.S. Open Cup match in Ludlow on March 24 at 7 p.m., a game that will be broadcast nationally and around the globe on ESPN+, ESPN's streaming service.  Soccer fans worldwide will be able to watch the game on the ESPN App on both smartphones and smart TV's, as well as on ESPNPlus.com.  This is a great opportunity for the long-time club and 2019 Northeast Division champions to get national media exposure, not to mention bringing national television coverage to Western Massachusetts.

The Pioneers have played in the United Soccer Leagues (USL) since their inception in 1997, but the league name has changed multiple times over the years.  In 2019, the USL changed the Pioneers' league to USL League 2 (USL2), in what seems to be a better name and organizational structure for the USL.  

The 3,000-seat Lusitano Stadium in Ludlow, Massachusetts,
home of the Western Mass. Pioneers and the 
New England Mutiny.
The Pioneers will face the Portland Phoenix, also of USL2.  The league operates semi-professional, giving teams and players the option to get exemptions from the NCAA to play in the league during the college off-season.  The quality of the Pioneers remains at an elite level, something the club has maintained since the team's founding.  The Pioneers are coming off a historical season, finishing with an undefeated 11-0-3 record.  

The club also finished tied for first in points throughout all of USL2, a league that has 85 teams in 11 divisions throughout every region of the United States.  USL2 provides a feeder-system to USL1, which provides development to USL Championship, just one league below Major League Soccer in the "U.S. Soccer pyramid".  The restructuring of the USL allowed for a more clear system of league levels affiliated with the United States Soccer Federation.

Having the Pioneers in a competitive league like USL2 and in a national tournament like the U.S. Open Cup provides area soccer fans with a tremendous opportunity to see a high level of soccer locally, the ability to bring national television coverage to Ludlow, but also the chance to see players develop before they reach the higher levels in the nation's system of soccer leagues.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

New Valley Flyer Amtrak service brings opportunity to Springfield sports and entertainment

By Zachary Baru

Passenger rail is once again thriving in the Pioneer Valley thanks to Amtrak and the State of Massachusetts' new Valley Flyer service.  The new service, which began in August 2019, brings an excellent opportunity to sports and entertainment promoters in Springfield, Mass., as fans can now come to events by multiple trains a day from Greenfield, Northampton and Holyoke, Mass.

The Need for More Passenger Rail Service in the Pioneer Valley

In 2014, for the first time since 1966, passenger train service was restored through Holyoke thanks to local leaders such as Mayor Alex Morse, Representative Aaron Vega, Senator Eric Lesser and Congressman Richard Neal.  The train was Amtrak’s Vermonter, with one train daily in each direction, connecting St. Albans, Vermont and Washington, D.C.

Amtrak's Vermonter at Union Station in Springfield.
Photo by Zachary Baru.
The response to the new service was immediately positive.  The State of Massachusetts quickly discovered there was a demand for more rail service between Greenfield, Northampton, Holyoke, and the other connecting cities on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.  In 2019, the Massachusetts State Legislature approved funding for a new Amtrak state-supported service stopping in Holyoke, this time called the Valley Flyer.  The Valley Flyer began service in August 2019 and will run on a two-year trial, with its future depending on ridership.

Amtrak’s Valley Flyer, Vermonter and service to New York

The Valley Flyer will have two trains daily in each direction, serving Greenfield, Northampton and Holyoke, as well as Springfield, Hartford and New Haven.  The new Valley Flyer service combined with the once-daily Vermonter is a major economic opportunity for residents and businesses in Greenfield, Northampton and Holyoke.  Residents will now have more access to trains into New Haven, but also opportunities to ride the train into New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

For riders looking to directly travel to New York or points south, both the Vermonter and Northeast Regional connects Western Massachusetts to New York without the need to change trains.  The Northeast Regional only goes as far north as Springfield, but offers one daily train in each direction, with two on the weekends.  For riders looking for additional trains to get to and from New York or south from Springfield, they can take multiple offerings of the Valley Flyer or Amtrak Hartford Line to New Haven and have a cross-platform transfer to Amtrak’s Northeast Regional which continues onto New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.  Each of these trains have multiple offerings of departures allowing passengers to transfer in New Haven to Metro-North with hourly service into Grand Central Terminal in New York.

Opportunity for Sports and Entertainment Events in Springfield

With Downtown Springfield now connected by rail to major cities in the Pioneer Valley such as Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield, promoters of sports and entertainment events can attract a whole new market of fans who prefer to stay off the roads to access their destination.  One example of this is Major League Soccer, which is currently working on the combination of moving teams and adding teams in downtown areas to reach the demographic of fans who prefer public transit.

Courtesy of Wikipedia, "Springfield Union Station".
The leading demographic MLS is trying to reach are millenials, which MLS has specifically mentioned they are trying to attract by this latest approach to locating teams.  Just last week, the Chicago Fire of MLS announced the move out of their soccer-specific stadium in the suburb of Bridgeview to Soldier Field in Downtown Chicago.  The Fire specifically mentioned their move into this National Football League stadium was intended to appease the desires of millennial fans who prefer a downtown setting for public transit options.  Many other MLS teams have seen success in recent years in urban stadiums such as Seattle, Portland, LAFC and New York FC for this very same reason of attracting a large group of fans using public transit.

Promoters in Springfield can now focus on this in their marketing as more public transportation offerings for the city are added.  The new Valley Flyer service is just one example of more public transit for Springfield, but the future looks bright with the opening of the renovated Union Station in 2017 and the new "CTrail Hartford Line" commuter train service that was added in 2018.

The Future

For years, promoters in Springfield relied on I-91 funneling fans into the city from all four directions, but now with greater transit options, promoters in Springfield have an opportunity to join the trend of attracting fans who prefer not to rely on the highway.  The Valley Flyer is just in its infancy but it is example of our region's push for better connectivity, a challenge that has plagued other regions for decades, and one the Pioneer Valley would like to make itself known for solving.

Springfield has a big opportunity: location.  It is the economic center of Western Massachusetts, but also approximately 90 miles from Boston and Albany, 60 miles from Vermont and just 2.5 hours from the largest media market in the U.S., New York City.  That is as central as you can get for a lot of cities, but Springfield has long been an transportation hub that was overlooked for many decades.  With the help of local leaders, Springfield is once again the transit hub it once was.  The question is, will promoters of area events take advantage of this opportunity to tap into a demographic of people who are ready and willing to attend events, but no longer want to rely on congested highways?  Time will tell, but whatever the answer may be, Springfield is ready.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Same league, different name for Pioneers

By Zachary Baru

A new season for the Western Mass. Pioneers is here, and while the soccer will still be the same as the unofficial fourth-tier of American soccer, the Premier Development League is no more. 

While the PDL name has changed, the Pioneers' league is technically still the same, as the PDL has changed their name to USL League 2.  The United Soccer League went through a series of restructuring this season, which was initially announced back in 2017, but has just come into full fruition.

The first of many changes from the USL for the 2019 season was the organization dropping the "s" from their name, changing from the United Soccer Leagues to the United Soccer League.  Secondly, the USL changed their highest level league from the self-named United Soccer League to USL Championship.  The new league name did not change the level of play, as USL Championship is still  recognized as a second tier league by the U.S. Soccer Federation, just as the formerly-named USL was.

The next change for the USL organization was the addition of a new league for the 2019 season.  This league is called USL League One, recognized as a third tier league by U.S. Soccer.  That makes the Pioneers' new league, USL League Two, commonly recognized as a fourth tier league in North America, however U.S. Soccer does not officially recognize the league as fourth tier since U.S. Soccer does not include non-professional leagues in their hierarchy.

When it comes to USL League Two, however, make no mistake about it, this is an extremely competitive and well-run organization.  Besides the name change, USL League Two is comprised of 72 franchises across 4 divisions in North America, and is as strong as the league has ever been.  The league is arguably even stronger now after the USL's restructuring of their leagues, making way for the Pioneers' new league to represent a true progression of talent across of the leagues of the USL.

We are fortunate to have an extremely high level of soccer in our own backyard.  Lusitano Stadium, home of the Pioneers and now the New England Mutiny, is a special venue that has been nationally recognized for its intimacy and soccer-specific design.  No matter where you decide to sit or stand, you can be right on top of the action with perfect sight lines.  For Western Mass. soccer fans, having a strong league like USL League Two, a quality franchise like the Pioneers, and the unique venue of Lusitano Stadium so close to home is a true gift, and one no soccer fan should live without.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.